Pastor David B. Curtis


How To Become Great

Mark 9:30-37

Delivered 10/29/2006

This study will prove irritating for some of you, because the Gospel of Mark is going to teach us things that are quite contrary to the way we have been taught. Our culture teaches us that our interests are the most important, but our text for today is about dismissing our own interests in favor of others. Our culture teaches us that we deserve-indeed are entitled to-the best, but this text is about choosing to be last and servant of all.

In the end of chapter 8 we see the account of Jesus' dialogue with His disciples at Caesarea Philippi. From Caesarea Philippi Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain to pray, and He is transfigured before them. On their way down from the mountain, they question their Rabbi about Elijah. When they get down from the mountain a crowd meets them, along with the rest of the disciples. A man has brought to them his demon possessed boy, but they could not help him. Jesus rebukes their unbelief and heals the boy. Mark then tells us that Jesus passed through Galilee again on his way to Capernaum, and he stresses the teaching ministry of the Lord to His disciples:

Mark 9:30 (NASB) And from there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He was unwilling for anyone to know about it.

It is evident from the account that our Lord deliberately avoided the crowds as they went back toward Capernaum. They took the back roads in order not to be seen; this trip was covert, because He wanted to spend time with these disciples. This was a time of private and intense instruction from Jesus to the twelve. This is the last reference to Galilee in the Gospel of Mark prior to the Crucifixion.

Jesus had already told the disciples of the passion that would soon unfold. Just after Peter's triumphant confession of Jesus as the Christ, our Lord explained the moral necessity of His suffering, death, and resurrection (Mark 8:31). Now He reiterates this again.:

Mark 9:31 (NASB) For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later."

He was always involved in the business of teaching them. Here, He again brings up the subject of His suffering and death. The NASB doesn't do justice to the tenses in this text. What He described was already determined in the mind of God. Young's Literal Translation does a good job of bringing out the tenses:

Mark 9:31 (YLT) for he was teaching his disciples, and he said to them, 'The Son of Man is being delivered to the hands of men, and they shall kill him, and having been killed the third day he shall rise,'

The Greek text begins with an emphatic term that shows the necessity of an action as a divine decree, "It is destined that the Son of Man be delivered over into the hands of men." Jesus did not want them to miss out on the absolute certainty of what must take place in Jerusalem. The destiny followed the divine decree. God had planned all along that His Son suffer on behalf of sinners.

Some moralize salvation thinking that Jesus' plan was to give us a good example of how to follow the Golden Rule. His death, for that reason, was the great tragedy of humanity. It didn't have to happen since all He wanted to do was to show us how to live and get along with each other. But the Scriptures clearly teach that the cross was God's predetermined plan. Peter expressed something of this in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:

Acts 2:23-24 (NASB) this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 "And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.

John also clearly tells us that the death of Christ was in the plan of God:

Revelation 13:8 (GWT) Everyone living on earth will worship it, everyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life. That book belongs to the lamb who was slaughtered before the creation of the world.

Notice when the Lamb was slaughtered­ it was in eternity past. The prophet Isaiah had foretold the suffering and death of Christ:

Isaiah 53:10 (NASB) But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

In eternity past God planned the suffering and death of Jesus Christ to pay for the sin debt of all God's elect. The disciples knew the Tanakh; they should have known this!

Mark 9:31 (NASB) For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later."

"The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men." In this announcement of the cross, a new element is added which has not appeared before. The word translated "delivered" is the Greek word paradidomi, which means: "turning over to punishment, imprisonment, or severe judgment." The verb is used of Judas' betrayal in 3:19. Jesus would be handed over from one to another; betrayed by Judas, handed over by the Sanhedrin, passed on to the mocking soldiers by Pilate, and finally handed over to Pilate to be sentenced to be crucified. They all had a hand in it. But finally it was God Who delivered Him up. Without that, no one could have done anything.

"And they will kill Him"; eternal justice stood in the balance at the cross. The public display of Jesus in His bloody death as the divine satisfaction (propitiation) fulfilled God's justice so that He might justly forgive sinners. No kingdom citizenship exists apart from the cross. No sonship through God adopting us into His family can take place without the cross. To put it plain and simple: God could not forgive and save anyone apart from the satisfaction of His eternal justice that required eternal damnation for every son of Adam; Christ felt the agony of God's eternal justice for us at the cross. He had to be killed in such a way; the Innocent One on behalf of the eternally guilty, so that the guilty might be declared righteous - and now citizens of God's kingdom forever.

"He will rise three days later." Disaster will be followed by triumph. Not for one moment are we to be allowed to comprehend that God will be defeated. His death would be followed immediately by resurrection. Death would be defeated, and God would triumph (Isaiah 53:12). How clearly the disciples were taught what was to be, and how totally unprepared they were, because they did not believe Him. Even as they stood at the empty tomb, they still did not understand the resurrection:

John 20:8-9 (NASB) So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

The death and resurrection of Christ is "good news," which is the literal meaning of "gospel." But the disciples didn't see it as good news. Matthew alone records that the disciples were "deeply grieved" by this teaching:

Matthew 17:22-23 (NASB) And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; 23 and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day." And they were deeply grieved.

Kittels notes that the Greek word translated here "grieved" is lupeo, which can mean both "physical pain and mental anguish." The word implies deep sorrow or distress or what we might term, "pain in the gut." They just could not get over Jesus being killed. We know that Christ's promise of resurrection did not make sense to them, so we find great irony. While Jesus declares the good news, the disciples can only plunge deeper into sorrow. If the disciples had their way, no one could have been brought into a restored relationship with God. We'd all be damned!
The new bit of information that we have here ­ that He's going to be delivered into the hands of men ­ should cause the disciples to ask: Who? Who is going to deliver Him? But as we find out in verse 32, they don't ask any questions:

Mark 9:32 (NASB) But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.

They did not understand, because they did not want to. They were afraid to ask Him, because they did not want what He was saying to be confirmed. Like a person who might receive bad news from the doctor and then refuse to ask further questions, they, too, didn't want to know any more. How often do we reject what we do not wish to see? How much easier it would have been for them in the end if they had been willing to believe. But men do not easily give up their cherished ideas, even if they are wrong. How often we are like them.

I understand this fear of truth, do you? Often when the truth goes against what you believe, you don't what to hear it. It may mean that you have to give up a dearly held belief. I went through this when I was exposed to preterism. After a brief conversation on preterism, a friend brought me over two books on the subject. Those two books sat on my desk for two weeks before I read them. I'd look at them and think, "If what their teaching is true, this is going to cost me." I finally read them, and my deepest fears were confirmed ­ I was convinced that preterism was true, I was convinced that the Lord Jesus Christ had returned in the first century just as He said He would. And it did cost me. I know something of the fear these disciples were feeling. I in no way want to compare the disciples suffering to mine. I simply want to say that I understand their fear of a truth that goes against what we believe.

They did not want to know any more about this subject. They were expecting a Messiah who would be a political and military leader. They didn't want to hear about a suffering, dying Messiah. We all tend to bury our heads in the sand at times, to think that if we do not look at something, it will go away.

Mark 9:33 (NASB) And they came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, "What were you discussing on the way?"

Capernaum had become the home base for Christ and the disciples throughout their labors together. This was the last time they would be together in this house. They didn't respond to Jesus' question because, I assume, they were ashamed:

Mark 9:34 (NASB) But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.

The disciples had been discussing which one of them was the greatest. Jesus had just talked to them about His suffering and death, and they are talking about which of them is the greatest. We don't really know what precipitated this conversation. Perhaps it was because Jesus had taken only Peter, James, and John up to the Mount of Transfiguration with Him. As you recall, when they descended back down the mountain, Jesus told the disciples not to relate to anyone what they had seen. Perhaps the disciples who did not go asked them what happened there, to which the three replied in a self-righteous way: We can't tell you. It's privileged knowledge only for those of us who are most important. If something like that had taken place, it is easy to see how a debate on who was really important followed.

In our society, and in theirs as well, greatness was measured in how many served you, how many obeyed your command, how many catered to your needs. As a matter of fact, in the Jewish culture itself, great time was spent in deciding the relative rank of individuals. It was important to know where people fell on the pecking order. How one dealt with a superior was far different than how one dealt with an inferior. Status, authority, and titles were all important in the protocol of the Jewish religious community. But aren't we like the disciples? We compare ourselves with others and desire their praise. The appetite for glory and greatness seems to be inbred in us. Who doesn't cherish the ambition to be "somebody" whom others admire rather than a "nobody"?

We all tend to measure success and greatness by criteria which the world uses and then take those and apply them to the Church. The leader with the biggest congregation, the greatest following, the most converts; all these are considerations which the world forces upon its inhabitants where winning is everything, but it shouldn't be so in the Church.

Practically everyone in my generation has heard of the Campus Crusade tract, "The Four Spiritual Laws." The first law in the popular tract skews the gospel: "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." One of the most popular beliefs of our day is that God loves everybody. But the idea that God loves everybody is a modern belief. The writings of the church fathers, the Reformers, or the Puritans will be searched in vain for any such concept. The fact is that the love of God is a truth for the saints only. With the exception of John 3:16, not once in the four gospels do we read of the Lord Jesus Christ telling sinners that God loved them. In the book of Acts, which records the evangelistic labors and messages of the apostles, God's love is never referred to at all. Does that seem odd to you? But when we come to the Epistles, which are addressed to the saints, we have a full presentation of God's love for His saints.

So what happens when an unbeliever is confronted with this first law? "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." The implication is that this whole thing about the gospel and salvation is all about me. That's where we find the disciples. In their thinking, the kingdom is about "me."

Jesus has just shared about His upcoming death, and the disciples are angling for position. They don't seem to care about what is going to happen to Jesus. Let me tell you something. If I were Jesus here in this passage, I'd be in the market for some new disciples. What is a disciple? It is someone who more that anything else in the world wants to be like the Rabbi. These guys are not very good disciples. I would be done with these guys. But that's not Jesus' response. He turns it into a teaching opportunity. Jesus' attitude is: You want to talk about greatness? Let's do that. Let's talk about greatness:

Mark 9:35 (NASB) And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all."

So what Jesus does is He takes human values and dumps them on their head--He turns them upside down. You see, we think greatness is about being first. Jesus says, "Greatness is about being last." We think greatness is about having a position of power and prestige where we can be served. Jesus says, "Greatness is about being a servant." From Jesus' perspective, a great person puts everyone else before himself and takes on the role of a servant.

There is a peculiar bike race that takes place in India. The goal of the race is to go the shortest amount of distance possible in a set amount of time. So here's how it works. The contestants line up and the gun goes off. Ever so slowly they inch their bike forward--because if they lose their balance and put their foot down, they are disqualified. So they've got to keep going just as little as they can to go the shortest distance as possible. And after a certain amount of time, bang! The gun goes off again and it's measured which bike went the shortest distance, and that's the winner.

Now imagine that you're a part of this race, but you don't know the peculiar rules. So you are programmed to think of a normal race. The gun goes off, and you start pedaling away, and you look back to see you are winning big. That only serves to kick in your adrenaline and give you more energy to just go and go and go. You look back, and bang! The gun goes off, and you throw your hands into the air. You've won! But only then do you find out about the peculiar rules of the race. Not only have you not won, but you've lost. You actually came in last.

You see, that's what happens when it comes to pursuing greatness in life. The world tells us it's about getting first place. We try to get ourselves a position of prestige and power where we can be served, so we chase after that. And when we get it, it creates a desire for more, and we think: Man, we are getting ahead. We are winning, we're winning, we're winning! Then bang! The gun goes off, and our life comes to an end, and we look back and realize we lost, because we didn't know the rules.

Jesus' attitude toward the disciples and to us here is: You want to pursue greatness? By all means, do it! Go for it! The only thing I ask is that you know the rules--that you know the criteria. Greatness is determined by the person who puts everyone before himself and takes on the role of a servant. Once you get that criteria down, go for it. You pursue greatness with all your heart.

True greatness is manifested in humble servanthood. It is not how many serve me, but how many I serve. And it is through humble servanthood that we are exalted. This is a principle that is found all through the Word of God in precept and example:

Matthew 23:12 (NASB) "And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

It is one principle with two sides. It is a promise of being brought low to those who exalt themselves, and it is a promise of exaltation to those who humble themselves. We see this principle illustrated and stated in:

Luke 18:10-14 (NASB) "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13 "But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

James gives us the principle in:

James 4:10 (NASB) Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Peter gives us the principle also:

1 Peter 5:5-6 (NASB) You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE. 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,

Jesus, Peter, James, and Paul all said it. It is a biblical law-- exaltation follows humiliation. Just as sure as the law of gravity, is the law that those who humble themselves will be exalted. And the one who exalts himself will be humbled.

We see the negative side of this principle in the life of king Nebuchadnezzar. He exalted himself, and God humbled him. Nebuchadnezzar sought greatness in the worlds way and found himself being far from great:

Daniel 4:29-33 (NASB) "Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 "The king reflected and said, 'Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?' 31 "While the word was in the king's mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, 'King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, 32 and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes.' 33 "Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until his hair had grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws.

Nebuchadnezzar exalted himself, and God humbled him. Here we see the mighty king of Babylon wandering around eating grass like an animal. But when he humbled himself, God exalted him.

Daniel 4:37 (NASB) "Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise, exalt, and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride."

Joseph is an example on the positive side; he humbled himself and God exalted him:

Psalms 105:17-21 (NASB) He sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. 18 They afflicted his feet with fetters, He himself was laid in irons; 19 Until the time that his word came to pass, The word of the LORD tested him. 20 The king sent and released him, The ruler of peoples, and set him free. 21 He made him lord of his house, And ruler over all his possessions,

Could you give a definition of humility? We can't humble ourselves if we don't know what humility is. Humility is first a feeling toward God that He has absolute rights over your life ­ that he can do with you as He pleases and that He has absolute authority to tell you what is best for you ­ and that's just fine with you. It is a spirit of utter yieldedness and submissiveness to the Lord as master. The humble person sees him self as clay in the Potter's hands.

Secondly, humility means feeling indebted to all people because of how graciously God has treated us. It's the opposite of feeling that everybody owes you something ­ owes you an ear or owes you strokes or owes you time. The more you are driven by what others owe you rather than by what you owe them in love and service, the less humble you are.

Paul defined humility this way:

Philippians 2:3 (NASB) Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;

This way of thinking is very much against the grain in our culture, which is extremely self-centered. We are still a part of the "me-generation." But, even though many folks claim it is their right to be selfish, if that is what they want to do, we don't admire that quality in others. We like people who are interested in us, not just in themselves. We listen to people who talk about our concerns, not just their own. Therapists report that inmates of mental institutions say "I" or "me" twelve times more often than residents of the outside world. As their conditions improve, the patients use the personal pronoun less often. It is no surprise that a Christian who is constantly talking about himself or herself, doesn't have much interest in serving others.

By becoming last, we become first; by becoming a servant, we become great:

Mark 9:35 (NASB) And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all."

Jesus now illustrates His point:

Mark 9:36-37 (NASB) And taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 37 "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me."

He uses a child to drive home His point. They were probably in Peter's house. That seemed to be a base in Capernaum from which Jesus operated. Perhaps this was one of Peter's children. In any case, the point was it was just a child. Children are among the "all" of verse 35: "You must be the servant of all . . ." Children are examples of individuals who cannot do very much for you. When you receive children, they do not help your social status, your prestige, your power, or your ego. They cannot confer upon you a title, nor can they give you success. As a matter of fact, children require something from you. Children represent the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the ordinary ­ just plain human beings.

Jesus uses the example of a child and immediately turns the social norms on their head. There have been many interpretations of the reason that Jesus uses a child at this point, but if we keep the context in mind - the disciples were wanting position and status in the Kingdom of Heaven, and it's this issue which Jesus addresses.

A child was a person of no importance in Jewish society, subject to the authority of the elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, not to be looked up to. It is, then, the status of the child that is the point, rather than any supposedly characteristic quality of children.

William Barclay's writes this:

Now, a child has no influence at all. A child cannot advance a man's career, nor enhance a man's prestige. A child cannot give us things; it's the other way around. A child needs things. A child must have things done for him. And so Jesus is saying, "If a man welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence, and no wealth, and no power, the people who need things done for them, then he's welcoming me. And more than that, he's welcoming God."

Thus, to embrace a child publicly was to embrace that which was insignificant. Jesus was choosing insignificance by association. The first mark of greatness is that you learn increasingly to have no respect of persons, to welcome people simply because they are people, to take no consideration of whether they can do something for you. We are not to play favorites but to receive everyone ­ the supposed great and the small, the rich man and the poor man, without playing favorites. The point Jesus is trying to make is that when we receive the ordinary person in His name, we receive Him and His Father. Jesus said:

Matthew 25:40 (NASB) "And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

When we receive people in Jesus' name, we ought to receive them all, as we would the Lord Himself. Play no favorites - that is what Jesus is saying.

In the book of James, we receive an exhortation that is much the same as our Lord's concerning the importance of humble servanthood:

James 2:1 (NASB) My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.

The attitude of a humble servant seeks to serve others without playing favorites. Whether we are rich or poor is no consequence with God, and it shouldn't be with us. Furthermore, we shouldn't play favorites based on what people can do for us.

"Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me." The important words there are "in My name." The motive for receiving such a person, such as a small, unimportant child, is that it is done as unto the Lord ­ done in His name. It is not done because something of great value may come to you because of the child; it is something you do regardless of whether you receive any benefit in doing it, because it is done in His name.

In this passage Jesus sets before His disciples two options. There are two definitions or choices for greatness. One is the world's--which is being lived out by the disciples --and that says greatness is about being first. It's about getting a position where you can be served. And then we have what Jesus espoused--which is putting everyone else in front of yourself and being a servant.

If you choose the world's way, you come in last, and God will humble you. If you choose God's way, and make yourself a servant, God will exalt you, He will make you great!

How can we humble ourselves and become servants of all when pride is such a controlling factor is our lives? The solution to the problem of pride is to see yourself in a proper manner. To see yourself as someone who is saved and sustained by the grace of God alone. All we are, and all we have is a gift of grace from God; what do we have to be proud about?

We all differ from one another. Some of us are smarter than others, some of us are better looking than others, some of us are more talented than others, some of us are more gifted than others. We do differ, but who makes us to differ? The answer of course is God!

Exodus 4:11 (NASB) And the LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?

What do you have that is not a gift from God? Looks? Intelligence? Popularity? Talents? Possessions? This is true even of those things that are acquired by great self-denial and exertion.

1 Corinthians 4:7 (NASB) For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?

"What do we have that we have not received?" In this single sentence, Augustine saw the whole doctrine of grace. When we think of what we have done, and think of what God has done for us, pride is ruled out, and only humble gratitude remains. Remember, the greatest in God's kingdom is servant of all.

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